I don't leave it as much of a mystery that Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War is one of my favorite video games. However, after that entry, things become a little iffy for the series. I wouldn't say any of them are bad, but Ace Combat 6 certainly doesn't live up to 5 and Assault Horizon felt more like a Call of Duty game than anything else. I've been waiting eagerly for Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown for quite some time, and it's finally here. In the leadup to release, I've gotten a chance to play about half the game. Does it live up to my expectations?
Much like the last couple of Ace Combats, the plot of Skies Unknown covers the viewpoints of many different people. During missions, you'll play as Trigger, a newbie Osena pilot assigned to the Mage Squadron at the start of a surprise war. Early on, Trigger lands in prison, accused of killing a former president. Luckily, or perhaps, unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, Osena is losing the war and needs pilots desperately enough that they begin to recruit prisoners. This gives Trigger a second chance, both to win the war and clear his name.
Between missions, you'll watch CGI cutscenes focusing on other characters. You'll follow an Osena mechanic known as the Scrap Queen, a mysterious old man who mostly serves as a data point for drones, and a fellow pilot and wanna-be anarchist. They all serve as interesting perspectives, and it certainly helps make things feel like there's an entire war going on rather than just one hero soldier mopping up everyone else's mess. I don't want to say much else about the plot, as I'm still only halfway through the game, but I am enjoying it quite a bit so far.
If you've ever played any other Ace Combat game then you'll feel right at home as soon as you take to the air. For those who haven't, the basic idea is that you'll pick a plane and a special weapon, each having distinct advantages and disadvantages. You'll want to pay attention to mission briefings, as they'll inform you of the best options before each takeoff. Missions have a rather large variety, ranging from just destroying targets to hunting down trucks in the middle of a sandstorm. In the chunk of the game I played, I felt like I was always doing something different.
It may seem like it's tough to improve on flying a jet, but Skies Unknown manages to put in new systems that constantly kept me excited. The biggest one is the addition of using clouds for cover. If an enemy shoots a missile your way, diving into clouds reduces its ability to track you. Just don't stay in the clouds too long, as your plane can freeze up, causing lowered mobility and a blurred cockpit. Weather plays a constant role in the battle, with high winds pushing your plane around. I'm excited to see just how much more varied it can get.
Ace Combat is also a series known for its boss fights, and Skies Unknown doesn't disappoint. Early in the game, I got to take on an Arsenal Bird, a giant aircraft that launched drones to protect it. It also had missiles and an energy shield that blocked attacks and screwed up the UI if you flew through it. Later on, I got to take on an ace pilot in the middle of a thunderstorm. It was an exhilarating fight, one that saw both airplanes dancing around thunderbolts and missiles looking for that brief opening to cause even the slightest bit of damage. If more bosses live up to this high quality, then players are in for a real treat.
After every level, the game plays a video replay of your actions. At first, this may seem a bit weird, but I soon came to appreciate this function. Did something cool that you absolutely need to save in slow motion from a cool camera angle? Then you too will come to love this. It's almost like the next, smart, step in the traditional photo mode we've been seeing games add, and I can only hope other games pick up on this rather brilliant idea.
Another thing the series has always been known for (and that Skies Unknown continues the high quality of) is the soundtrack. From dramatic choirs during boss fights to rocking electric guitars, I always enjoyed the music. Normal levels have great upbeat themes that manage to fit the tone extremely well, while the dramatic moments are appropriately epic. I have no doubt I'll be listening to this soundtrack for some time to come.
I still have a lot more of Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown to play. I'm only halfway through the campaign, and I haven't even touched either the VR mission or the multiplayer. However, my initial impressions are extremely positive. I can't wait to dive back in and go back to shooting down as many jets as possible before dropping bombs on ground targets. This is exactly the shot in the arm the series needed, and before the game is done I may have a new favorite ace pilot.
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is being reviewed on PlayStation 4 using a copy provided by the publisher. The game is also available on Xbox One and will be coming to PC on 2/1.